When Elites Fail…

Like it or not, every enduring human civilization has had an elite of some sort. By elite, I mean the relatively small group – compared to the size of the society – that directs and controls the use of that society’s resources and sets that society’s goals and the mechanisms for achieving or attempting to achieve those goals.

Historically, and even at present, different countries have different elites, based on military power, economic power, political power, or religious power, or combinations of various kinds of power, and as time passes the composition of those elites tends to change, usually slowly, except in the cases of violent revolution. In general, the larger the country, the smaller the elite in proportion to the total population. In addition, the work of the French economist Thomas Piketty also suggests that economic inequality is the historical norm for most countries most of the time.

Since elites are a small percentage of the population, the members of the elite need a means of control. In the United States that means has largely been economically based from the very beginning of the United States. Initially, only white males could vote, and effectively, only white males of a propertied status could afford to run for office, where they associated with others of the propertied status. What tends to get overlooked by many about the Civil War was that, for the southern elite, the war was entirely economic. Slaves were a major form of wealth, and without that slave “property” many of the great southern plantations were essentially bankrupt. Thus, the southern elites were fighting for preservation of their unchallenged status as elites.

The rapid industrialization of the United States resulted in a change in the economic and social structure with the numbers of small farmers being gradually but inexorably reduced, with a concomitant growth in factory workers, who, initially were in practice little more than wage slaves, especially child and female workers. The growth in concentration of wealth and power in the “robber barons,” such as Astor, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Gould, Mellon, and others, without a corresponding increase in the worth and income of the workers was one of the factors behind the candidacy of William Jennings Bryan for the presidency in 1896, as exemplified by his statement to the National Democratic Convention, where he stated that “The man who is employed for wages is as much a businessman as his employer…” From there Bryan went on to suggest that the Republican candidate [McKinley] was basically the tool of the monied interests, concluding with the famous line, “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” But Bryan lost the election by 600,000 votes after industrialist Mark Hanna raised huge contributions from industry.

With McKinley’s assassination in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt became president, and over an eight year period pushed through a host of reform measures that improved public health, working conditions, and restricted and sometimes eliminated monopoly powers, and his successor, William Howard Taft, continued those efforts. In 1907, when a financial panic threatened to bring down the entire U.S. financial system, Roosevelt and his Treasury Secretary worked with financier J.P. Morgan to stave off the crisis. These efforts, and an improved economy, defused much of the working and lower middle class anger.

Roosevelt, however, wasn’t so much a supporter of the working class as what might be called a member of “responsible elite,” a man who felt that business and power had gone too far.

In contrast is what happened in Russia. People tend to forget that in the early 1900s Russia was the fifth most powerful economy in the world, but unlike Roosevelt and Taft, Czar Nicholas II and the Russian aristocracy continued to bleed the small middle class, the workers, and the serfs, with the result of continued revolts and unrest. Nicholas agreed to the creation of a parliament [the Duma] and then did his best to eliminate or minimize what few powers it had. And, in the end, the old elite lost everything they had to the new elites, whose power was based on sheer force, rather than a mixture of money and force.

There are more than a few other examples, but what they tend to show is that all societies have elites, and that those elites control society until they become incompetent… and another elite takes power.

From what I’ve observed, it appears that an increasing percentage of the American people is anything but pleased with all too many members of the current American elite, especially with business executives, the media, and politicians, and that most of those visible elites seem almost dismissive of or oblivious to that displeasure… and, more important, unwilling to deal with the root causes of that displeasure, except with words and, so far, empty promises.

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